The Industry

Cyberpunked

The most anticipated video game in years is a buggy mess. The gaming industry did this to itself.

A still from Cyberpunk 2077 with a character glitching next to his car.
Animation by Slate. Image via CD Projekt Red.

Cyberpunk 2077 looked for years like it would be an instant classic. A neo-noir role-playing game with laser-sharp graphics and a gritty dystopian setting, Cyberpunk debuted its first trailer in 2013 and quickly became one of the most anticipated video games ever. Gaming publications swooned after playing demos at the E3 expo in 2018. Polygon called it “visceral, claustrophobic and beautiful.” Players couldn’t wait to tailor their characters with cybernetic enhancements, join factions to fight evil megacorporations, and explore Night City, the game’s vast, mysterious setting.

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Last week, Cyberpunk 2077 finally came out. But players found it riddled with disruptive, often catastrophic glitches. Sometimes the image quality suddenly degrades, or character faces look unrecognizable. The problems are especially pronounced on older consoles like the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, which are supposed to be able to handle the game. When I booted up Cyberpunk at midnight on release day, the entire floor of the introductory scene was missing. My character, which I had spent an hour making, was reduced to a pixelated block of color.

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That was shocking, but not as much as what happened next: Cyberpunk 2077 was so poorly optimized that, after its publisher said players could get a refund from Sony, Sony went and removed the game from the PlayStation store until further notice.

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Right now, the story of Cyberpunk 2077 is its bugs. Some are so bad that they’ve become memes in their own right. One Reddit user found a glitch that had his character standing straight up and pantsless while riding a motorcycle. Cars of the future are reduced to two-dimensional squares when viewed from a distance. Speaking of cars: They tend to appear on top of characters unexpectedly, or fall off the map entirely, or do this:

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Player reactions have been everything from angry to despondent. In one Reddit screenshot that Elon Musk tweeted at the official Cyberpunk Twitter account, a player lamented that they had looked forward to the game for eight years and were now crying themselves to sleep. Cyberpunk developers reported receiving death threats and pleaded with gamers, “We are people just like you.” One user report on Metacritic called the game “the biggest disappointment of [the] gaming industry,” and IGN said that its reviewer felt nauseated from the jarring gameplay. The console game “fails to hit even the lowest bar of technical quality one should expect,” the review said.

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How is it possible that the most high-profile title of the year, one that had garnered excitement for almost a decade, is practically unplayable for many gamers?

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Unfortunately, this isn’t an exception for major video game titles. The botched release of Cyberpunk 2077 echoes a trend among large production studios to rush games out the door when they’re incomplete—hoping to fix the game with downloadable patches in the following weeks or months. In the case of Cyberpunk, executives and designers at publisher CD Projekt Red were aware of some of the biggest issues, specifically its abysmal performance on slightly older consoles, saying in an apology on Monday, “We should have paid more attention to making it play better on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.” This lagging performance on last-gen consoles was the justification for a release delay—the game’s third—in October. “We need to make sure everything works well and every version runs smoothly,” CD Projekt Red said in a statement at the time. “We’re aware it might seem unrealistic when someone says 21 days can make any difference in such a massive and complex game, but they really do.”

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In recent memory, highly anticipated titles like Assassin’s Creed Unity, WWE 2K20, and Halo: The Master Chief Collection have been so broken in their initial releases that their publishers had to push out patches to fix basic gameplay elements. With Assassin’s Creed Unity in 2014, character’s faces often didn’t load, creating grotesque and sometimes hilarious imagery. Halo: The Master Chief Collection had problems with its highly anticipated multiplayer capabilities, including visibility issues. WWE 2K20 was riddled with bugs, and its maker, WWE, canceled the next iteration of the game entirely.

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It’s hard to imagine many equivalent situations in, say, movies or television or music. But in gaming, numerous incentives exist for multimillion-dollar studios to release games with buggy content rather than delay production further and string out already exorbitant costs. Chief among these are the financial incentives of presale games.

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Large studios pump out a barrage of marketing content in the months—and, in the case of Cyberpunk, years—before launch to drive up digital presales. Fans are willing to pay early so they can have access the moment a game is released, and not worry about their local store running out of copies. For studios, the payoff from presales means companies can break even on a project before the physical launch date and don’t have to rely on sales after the release to stay afloat. Cyberpunk paid off its enormous marketing and engineering costs in presales alone, earning a profit during the first day of release. Destiny, a futuristic massive multiplayer online game released in 2014 that had a multiyear marketing campaign, was the most preordered game in history at that time. Halo: The Master Chief Collection reported selling 2 million copies within two days of launching on the online video game store Steam, much of them in presales.

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Digital presales skyrocketed during the pandemic, as gamers opted to download rather than risk a trip to the store. Cyberpunk 2077 sold 8 million orders prelaunch, 74 percent of which were digital downloads.

These presales also present another advantage for studios over the sale of physical copies. The window of opportunity that digital buyers have to return a game is so small that downloadable games are, for all intents and purposes, nonrefundable. Some digital purchases can be refunded only if played for fewer than two hours, and some can’t be refunded at all if they’ve been opened. The cutoff line is so severe that many gamers aren’t able to return a digital game. Physical games, on the other hand, can be brought back to the store at any time, provided the disks are in good condition. Before Sony’s surprise announcement about pulling the game, CD Projekt Red had said it would make an effort to provide digital refunds, although so far many players have been unable to return their games. The ability to make a game nonrefundable creates a locked-in funding source for studios. But it also means they have millions of customers who want what they’ve already paid for.

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The rise in downloadable content and patches, in other words, incentivizes studios to release buggy games before they’re ready. When I was growing up on a PlayStation 2 console, downloadable patches were rare; I never downloaded one, and I played a lot of games. Back then, you had to live with bugs. Now, large “Day One” patches for games are the norm. This is a substantially good thing: Thanks to downloadable patches, most bugs can be fixed without having to purchase a new copy. The flipside is that, if a game has met a certain amount of sales, studios may decide they shouldn’t delay a release when they can patch a major issue later.

Reviews and streamers are also major factors in sales and marketing strategies for studios. To drive presales up and hide bugs, studios use a combination of exclusive reviews and embargos to tailor launch and presales. In 2014, Assassin’s Creed Unity placed embargoes on game reviews until 12 hours after its launch. A day before its release last year, WWE 2K20 had no official reviews due to an embargo, even though a few influencers were given access to the game ahead of launch. The lack of reviews hid a severe graphics downgrade from the previous year’s title and allowed numerous bugs and content issues to go largely unchallenged before launch. A day after the title’s launch, the hashtag #FixWWE2K20 was trending on Twitter.

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Now studios are getting even more restrictive in these measures, with Cyberpunk 2077 marketers going even further than their predecessors to protect the game’s image. CD Projekt Red gave only PC versions of the game to reviewers before launch—PCs are best at running Cyberpunk and generally suffer fewer bugs than consoles because they can be updated frequently with top-of-the-line hardware. The studio also required journalists to sign nondisclosure agreements, with a penalty of around $27,000 if they shared original gameplay other than screenshots (the company later apologized for this). Prominent game reviewers like IGN have now updated their prelaunch reviews to reflect PS4 and Xbox One performance issues. IGN called Cyberpunk 2077 on last-generation consoles “nearly unrecognizable compared to the PC version.”

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Overworking their developers certainly doesn’t help studios with quality control. It’s practically an industry standard in video games to work developers to the bone in the months before a game launches—this is called “crunch.” Rockstar Games said in an interview in 2018 with Vulture that team members were working 100-hour-a-week shifts in anticipation for the launch of Red Dead Redemption 2. In September, CD Projekt Red mandated six-day workweeks ahead of Cyberpunk’s launch. Of course, not all bugs can be anticipated before launch, no matter how hard coders work. It’s really a numbers game: Some bugs just won’t pop up until a large population of gamers are playing simultaneously. Patches have their place for these kinds of issues. Gamers, invariably, are the best testers.

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It’s hard to overstate the amount of excitement that Cyberpunk 2077 had since its release. An entire industry waited for years and a generation of gamers grew up in the shadow of its future launch. I was 15 when Cyberpunk launched its first trailer and I graduated both high school and college waiting for it to come out; CD Projekt Red did nothing to temper expectations either, dropping gorgeous but ultimately unreliable cinematic trailers every year as it pushed the release date back further, promising every time to display the best possible version of the game.

Cyberpunk was a behemoth of the game industry, and it didn’t even exist. Now it looks like it’s taking a long, hard fall—like one of the cars in the game, toppling off the map, no longer running on hype.

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